Ellen is an only child who does not have a real home, even at the time when both her parents are still alive. Her father is "trash" and has a drinking problem, and the whole atmosphere is one of domestic violence. Her mother has a heart condition caused by "Romantic" Rheumatic fever and, when the novel opens, has to stay in the hospital. From an early age on, Ellen's thoughts center on how she could get rid of her father—she imagines killing him one way or another. When her mother is released from hospital Ellen's father treats her as badly as before, and it is up to Ellen to protect her mother from him. Soon, however, she takes an overdose of pills and dies while Ellen is lying next to her.
After her mother's premature death, Ellen, who is only eleven years of age, takes charge of the meager household finances. She starts accumulating money, as she realizes she will need money to have a better start later in life. In spite of her unhappy childhood Ellen is a smart girl; she borrows books from the library and is rather creative when it comes to spending her spare time. Her best friend, Starletta, is a young black girl who has poor, but kind parents. She is attracted to them although she has been brought up detesting "niggers" and although she herself cannot overcome all the racial prejudice that has been inculcated in her mind all her life. Ellen says she would never sleep in a "colored house". Also, she refuses to eat or drink anything when she is at Starletta's, remembering the myth that if you use the same glass or cup as "coloreds", the germs they have left on it will spread onto your lips and you will turn as dark as them.
On the other hand, her father himself has his "colored buddies" with whom he drinks. Ellen's odyssey (almost in a picaresque vein) starts the night Ellen's father mistakes her for her mother.
- At Starletta's parents' : After the first instance of abuse to her (not sexual), Ellen goes to Starletta's house, where she stays for the night.
- At Aunt Betsy's : On the following morning, having decided to leave her father for good, she packs all her belongings into a box and goes to Aunt Betsy, who has no children and whose husband has recently died. Betsy treats Ellen well, but she misunderstands Ellen about the permanence of Ellen's stay. Accordingly, when the weekend is over, Betsy turns her out again, and Ellen has to return to her father.
- At Julia's : When he starts beating her, her bruises are noticed at school and as a temporary solution, her free spirited art teacher invites Ellen to live with her and her husband, Roy. Ellen accepts, leaving with her few belongings and the money she has saved up over the past few months. Despite not completely understanding Julia and Roy's way of life, Ellen feels loved and happy. During the period of separations, her father tries to get her back by bribing her with money, but fails.
- At her grandmother's : Sooner or later the question of custody has to be settled in court. Ellen learns that her grandmother ("my mama's mama") is going to take care of her. A wealthy woman who can even afford two black household helps, her grandmother turns out to be a grumpy and bitter old woman who does not really love her granddaughter. She is referred to as the "bosslady" by her workers and she even makes Ellen work in the cotton fields during the summer. She also permanently reproaches Ellen for being her father's daughter and for taking after him, and claims Ellen is responsible for her own daughter's death. Furthermore, she says she knows that Ellen had sex with her father's colored friends (although this is not true). What is more, she suffers from persecution mania, believing that people around the house, even her doctor, are stealing things from her. When she becomes ill she expects Ellen to nurse her, which Ellen dutifully does up to the time her grandmother dies.
- At Aunt Nadine's : Ellen's life does not improve when she is taken up by another of her mother's sisters, her aunt Nadine Nelson, who lives with her daughter Dora. Dora, who is the same age as Ellen, and Nadine are a self-sufficient pair who consider Ellen an intruder. The big quarrel occurs, of all days, on Christmas Day, when Dora gets all kinds of presents (toys mainly) and Ellen receives a single pack of white drawing paper, which she throws at Nadine's feet. Furthermore, Ellen takes a lot of effort to paint a picture for her aunt and her cousin, but she overhears them describing her painting as "silly" and "cheap-looking". As an act of revenge, Ellen pretends she has a boyfriend who has given her a microscope for Christmas. Nadine calls her an "ungrateful little bitch" and tells her she does not want to see her again in her house.
- At her new mama's : In church Ellen encounters a nice and friendly woman, who she believes is called Mrs Foster, and her well-behaved children. She carefully plans to get in touch with them, and after her argument with Nadine she just packs her things together and goes to the house of the "Foster family". In reality, the "family" is a home for disadvantaged adolescents—a kind of foster family rather than a "real" family with the surname Foster . Orphaned after her father's death (of an aneurysm), Ellen does not tell us about the formalities she has to go through to be accepted, but the most important thing for her is that for the first time in her life she is given a warm welcome. Throughout the novel, the reader learns how beautiful her new home is. Ellen also overcomes her racial prejudice and is very glad that her new mama allows Starletta to spend the weekend with her at her new home.